I recently posted a reflection on “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s movie about an eminent chef whose career runs aground on the shoals of excess caution, then is re-floated thanks to a cross-country jaunt on a food truck. One of the movie’s themes that I didn’t write about but that is pertinent to this blog is generativity.
Generativity, the positive outcome in psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s seventh stage of psychosocial development, consists of creating or nurturing some project or person that will outlast oneself. Usually in midlife, the person moves from being primarily concerned about self-enhancement to being concerned about the welfare of one’s children, students, or younger colleagues. As George Vaillant puts it in Aging Well, generativity “involves the demonstration of a clear capacity to unselfishly guide the next generation. Generativity reflects the capacity to give the self—finally completed through mastery of the first three tasks of adult development—away.” (p. 47)
At the start of “Chef,” Carl Casper—the Chef of the movie’s title–lacks interest in generativity. True, he provides guidance to the younger workers in the kitchen he runs, but the emphasis is on food production rather than on mentoring his underlings. The time he plans to spend with his 10-year-old son Percy is often lost to work, and Carl devotes the few hours they do have together to amusements rather than to anything that might deepen their relationship.
Carl’s self-centeredness starts to change after he loses his job. His sous-chef Tony cooks the meal that the restaurant owner insisted on and that Carl refused to make. Rather than holding a grudge against Tony for not supporting his stand, Carl readily accepts Tony’s efforts to reconcile. He tells Tony that he deserves to run his own kitchen, which seems to be his way of offering his blessing to Tony.
Carl moves further toward generativity in his relationship with Percy. He takes interest in what Percy knows, learning from him about social media. Admittedly, this is self-serving at first—he wants to master Twitter in order to respond to negative Tweets about him—but at least he’s starting to be aware of Percy as a person. He accepts Percy’s help on the food truck, gradually going from using Percy just as another set of hands to teaching Percy the intricacies of food selection and preparation. The most clearly generative sequence occurs when Percy, distracted, allows a sandwich to burn. Carl stops production, takes Percy aside, and asks him whether he really wants to do this—he cares, finally, about Percy’s desires. After Percy responds in the affirmative, Carl opens up about what cooking means to him. He says (roughly) the following:
“Everything that’s great in my life is because of this. I’m good at this and I want to share it with you. I get to touch people’s lives because of this.”
Would that all of us could nurture our children by sharing with them our passions! In his study of aging adults, George Vaillant found that “Generativity provided the underpinning of a successful old age.” (p. 113) The time to be constructing such an underpinning is not when we retire, but, as with Chef Carl, when we are in the midst of adulthood, when we have something worth sharing and someone worth sharing it with.